Marissa Mayer is currently the most powerful pregnant woman in America.
What does that mean for the rest of us?
Named the new chief executive of Yahoo! yesterday, Mayer announced hours later that she is pregnant with her first child. So now the 37-year-old will be watched by tech and business experts who wonder whether she can turn the struggling Internet giant around. She’ll be watched just as closely by women everywhere, who wonder how she will combine this with new motherhood.
Her first comment on the subject was that she will take only a few weeks of maternity leave when her son arrives in October and she’ll probably work through those from home.
Was your first reaction to cringe? How can Mayer set back the cause of women like that? The only woman to have a baby while running a major company, and she bats away the right for real and unencumbered time off — something new mothers need more of, not less? What sort of role model do we have here?
A fitting one.
The fact is, life/work balance is easier at the top. Mayer will have all the things parents need to combine family and career — good childcare, the ability to set her own schedule, a spouse with the same flexibility. A few years ago I was on a panel with Heidi Miller, who, at the time, was the most powerful woman in banking, and she memorably said, “At the top you don’t have to be there at 10 a.m. sharp because you know you have a staff who will be there at 10 a.m. sharp. It’s getting to the top that’s hard on mothers, not being there.”
So what value and obligation does Mayer have to working mothers? (And she does have one. As long as women with children are the exception at the top they are, willingly or not, role models.) It is to be aware of what she has that others need. To create a culture where jobs are as flexible as possible, so all parents can mold them around their family needs. To understand that a pregnancy doesn’t diminish a woman’s brain cells, or her worth. And that being a parent makes you a better, more committed, more focused worker, not a lesser one.
She will learn that last part firsthand. In spite of the flexibility and resources available at the top, she will still work incredibly hard. Having an infant will make that even harder, in all the ways that new parents know but she is about to find out. It will also clarify her priorities, sharpen the way she uses her time and enhance her understanding of the people who work for her and are trying to do the same thing.
She will also, I am betting, not power through quite as single-mindedly on her maternity leave as she thinks she will.
Congratulations, Marissa. Enjoy the view.
By Lisa Belkin